Podcast: Rigor vs. Relaxed Alertness
How do parents ensure that homeschooling is challenging and rigorous enough for their kids to become smart, successful adults?
Many parents are under the impression that rigor is the best version of learning. Education that is rigorous means students are learning more, so many see rigor as a measuring tool for how serious the institution is for learning. But is that really the case?
Let’s deconstruct the notion of rigor and see if there is something easier to implement and more effective for learning.
Listen to the Podcast
The paradox of preparation
What’s the goal of all that schoolish drudgery and hard work, the intensity and pressure of performance?
Most often cited is a goal to be prepared for whatever the next educational step may be. The way we interpret preparation has a lot to do with our perceptions of the places we want our kids to go next. We treat junior high as a dress rehearsal for high school by making junior high or middle school just as hard as high school. But how do we prepare students for junior high? By making elementary school more rigorous. And how do we prepare them for that?
We borrow worry from the future in the form of “preparing” for challenges yet to come, which leads to a spiraling of preparation that often leads to absurd results. When is it okay to just be where we are instead of preparing for what’s ahead?
Where does this love of “difficulty” and “struggle” come from?
In the United States, we’ve adopted a credo—that to be a person of value, you ought to have a story of struggle to prove your worth. We admire stories of struggle! We love tales of achievement. Some kids are the first in their families to go to college or to become professionals, while their working class parents scrimped and saved to make those dreams possible. We love these stories!
Adversity that is overcome is prized—as it should be—because it proves that it’s possible to lead lives of supreme value despite obstacles thrown in the way. That kind of rigor is the kind we do admire and should. But what about “academic rigor?” What’s that all about?
Because we are a culture that values duty and hard work, we sometimes forget that there is a full human being to consider. We focus on the discipline, the persistence, the demonstration of achievement over and above leading a life of wellness and wholeness. Rigor for its own sake is not valuable. You could work hard carrying a bag of rocks up and down a hill until you are exhausted to prove you can do it, but is there any inherent need to do that task? Does it serve you in any meaningful way? Effort alone does not confer value, does not encode content or information to the memory more effectively.
So if rigor is not the characteristic that ensures the optimal context for learning, what does?
Rigor vs. Preparation
Our goal in learning is not to get more comfortable with difficulty, but to become more prepared for the experience of challenge. Preparation and rigor are not one in the same. We feel most prepared when we enter a particular mind state while learning. What is that state?
My favorite brain researchers, Geoffrey and Renate Caine, tell us that we are best ready to face learning challenges from a state of what they call “relaxed alertness.” They define that state as: “Low threat and high challenge.” Here we have the nexus of the idea. We falsely associate rigor with challenge and struggle, and thereby accidentally create high stakes, high threat conditions for learning.
Relaxed alertness functions in a different way. It’s the state where the child feels he or she has enough skills, enough understanding to meet the next challenge with some confidence. A low threat environment.
In a Stanford study of relaxed alertness, the researchers found that people in this state are apt to describe how they feel like this:
- “Even though I am challenged and excited (even anxious), I feel capable and trust in my abilities.”
- “My mind is relatively focused and open to possibilities despite obstacles or potential uncertainties.”
- “My actions are under my control. I want to respond to this situation.”
When we focus on rigor, students are more likely to respond in these ways:
- “My body is tense and agitated because I don’t know what to do.”
- “My mind is distracted or focused too narrowly.”
- “My actions are not under my control. I don’t really want to act on this.”
Creating a learning environment that is oriented to rigor may lead you to a high threat experience rather than a meaningful challenge.
One of the exciting data points in the research shows that “relaxed alertness” can become a habitual state for any of us. But how do we get there? The brain is adaptable, meaning that it can adapt to experiences that repeat. What I love about this understanding is that homeschooling is the best opportunity we have to help our kids experience preparation and relaxed alertness rather than the shiny distraction called “rigor.”
Facilitating Relaxed Alertness at Home
Consider this cluster of traits researchers have identified:
- Self-efficacy—a child’s belief that he or she is capable. It starts there! This is one of the reasons we jot down our kids’ thoughts to show them the value of their thinking that deserves to be in writing. It’s the reason we compliment a child on completing a LEGO build or we admire their elaborate costume they created for play or we notice when they patiently wait for their turn without crying. As we honor the times our kids show their capacities, we reinforce that these skills they possess are a valuable resource to all of us, but especially to them.
- Resilience—a child’s ability to bounce back from setbacks or failure. Think of the child who goes for the goal in a soccer match and misses. That child gets back out on the field with a belief that next time will be different. Do we cultivate that same sense in learning? Do we say: “So you didn’t read that word correctly, you’ll read many more words in your lifetime. Let’s tackle the next one”? Can we remind our child of their capacity for improvement and regrouping, for problem-solving?
- Self-Regulated Learners (taking charge of their own learning)—a child who is motivated intrinsically to know whatever it is they want to know! Think about how much your kids can go down a rabbit trail of fascination. Rigor might ask your student to perform better and better on common core standards. Meanwhile your child is on his third read through of the Redwall book series. This child is choosing to take in Redwall at a much more profound level, retaining more and more of the cadence of the language, the story-line, the character development, the moral arc of the message. Why do we see re-reading as not “rigorous” enough when in fact it may be the single best way for a child to become a relaxed, alert, self-regulated learner? Whenever a child gets lost in that rabbit hole of fascination, you know you’ve arrived!
Think of what you are growing in your children this way: “confidence, competence, and motivation grounded in meaning or purpose.” That’s what we can do at home!
When you are worried that you are not giving your kids what they need to become those high-achieving students who go to the special schools whose claim is that they give a rigorous education, remind yourself of this first: you have the opportunity to grow emotionally whole, well-adjusted, relaxed and alert learners who can rely on themselves to learn — not some school’s high stakes, high threat environment that pushes them to become stressed and agitated.
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- The Stanford Article: “Why Relaxed Alertness Provides the Optimum Emotional Climate for Learning”
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